Bringing two of Singapore and Japan’s most popular dishes (bak kut teh and ramen) together in a film about cultural and culinary fusion, Singaporean auteur Eric Khoo’s “Ramen Teh” is cinematically more comfort food than haute cuisine. Cinephiles who’ve savored Khoo’s provocative representations of his country’s dark, perverted underbelly will find nothing of the sort on this menu. Following a Japanese ramen chef’s journey to Singapore in search of inspiration and his long-lost relatives, the theme is a familiar one — how cooking expresses one’s emotions and brings people closer. Serving Singapore’s most visitor-friendly facet on a plate, it’s the kind of foodie fix that’s a must-have for any festival with a culinary sidebar.
Khoo’s fascination with Japan runs deep, dating back to “Tatsumi,” his 2011 amimated feature dedicated to ’50s manga pioneer Yoshihiro Tatsumi. The director’s gastronomic tastes are equally ingrained. His debut feature “Mee Pok Man” is set in an iconic noodle shop in Tiong Bahru, while his more recent docu-fiction “Wanton Mee” mourns the waning of some of Singapore’s best hawker stalls and the ethics passed on through such multigenerational livelihoods. “Ramen Teh” is a fictional continuation of that project, crossed with the now globally hip ramen. Khoo finds a connection between the two dishes’ humble beginnings as affordable nourishment for the working class, and how both succeed or fail by their slow-simmered pork bone broth.
Masato (Takumi Saito) helps his father Kazuo (Tsuyoshi Ihara) and uncle Akio (a casually charismatic Tetsuya Bessho, who voiced “Tatsumi”) run their family ramen shop in Takasaki, a city in Gunma prefecture, East Japan. He’s resentful of his father, who became workaholic and distant since his Singaporean wife Mei Lian (Beatrice Chien) passed away. When Kazuo dies from a sudden stroke, Masato decides to go to Singapore, where he was born and raised as a child.
He searches for his uncle Wee (Mark Lee, aka Lee Kok Huang of “Money No Enough”), who ran the family bak kut teh (pork rib soup) joint. Flashbacks to how Kazuo and Mei Lian met and fell in love intersperse with Masato’s own childhood memories of Singapore. The script by Tan Fong Chen and Wong Kim Ho labors to idealize their relationship yet can’t come up with any new romantic recipe. Tasked with speaking Japanese and English respectively, Chien and Ihara are too wooden onscreen to generate believable familiarity let alone love.
Meanwhile, Masato hooks up with Miki (Seiko Matsuda, one of the most worshipped pop idols throughout Asia in the ’80s), a Japanese food-blogger who gives him a whirlwind gourmet tour around the city-state. Not only functioning as a go-between, Miki has a backstory that’s quite poignant.
When Masato finally finds Uncle Wee, the scene is sweet without being too schmaltzy, thanks to comedian Lee’s deadpan mannerisms. It’s a pity the film doesn’t make more of his character’s potential for comic eccentricity, and when Wee passes on the cherished family recipe to his nephew, it seems too easy — compared with classic culinary films like Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo” or Stephen Chow’s “God of Cookery,” where the secret sauce is a holy grail which the protagonist has to undergo trials to attain. Still there’s no denying that the step-by-step demonstration of how bak kut teh is made is an eye-opening show.
The real climax, however, happens when Uncle Wee introduces Masato to his maternal grandmother (Jacqueline Aw), the catalyst that inspires the titular fusion dish. It occasions a sobering reminder of history that underscores the film’s motif of forgiveness and reconciliation. These themes find a moving expression in home-cooked meals whose simplicity and subtle blend of Malay and Chinese regional cooking styles embody Singapore’s diversity.
Performances are somewhat constricted by conventional characterization obviously culled from Japanese melodrama, such as the workaholic, emotionally reserved father; the Madonna-like dead mother leaving recipes as legacy; or the artisan pouring his soul to perfect his craft. The cast is lucky to have model-turned-actor Saito, an emerging director (“Blank 13”) in his own right, who exudes a maverick air, giving his derivative role credibility through the zeal he displays when cooking or observing other’s preparations. Matching him in low-key authenticity is Aw, who gives every scene she’s in a lived-in feel.
Signature national dishes like chicken rice, fish-head curry, laksa and chili crab, to name just a few, are shot in tight close-up by lenser Brian Gothong Tang so that the steam swirls around the frame and one can imagine the tingle of spices on the tongue.